Resting on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, is Glensheen Mansion. The 12-acre estate is highlighted by a 27,000-square-foot, 39-room house, built between 1905 and 1908 as the residence of a prominent attorney associated with Minnesota’s mining industry.
Opened as a house museum in 1979, Glensheen is owned by the University of Minnesota. The attraction’s director, Dan Hartman, describes his role as “kinda like the chef and the CEO wrapped into one.”
While the mansion is a study in early 20th-century craftsmanship, Hartman takes a very modern approach to managing the attraction.
“We’re connoisseurs of unique experiences,” he told me when I visited Glensheen in August.
So refreshing is his approach, I followed up with some questions for the chef/CEO:
You changed from offering traditional guided tours to self-guided tours for most guests. How did that affect visitation?
It immediately made Glensheen more accessible to more people, and it has helped us to nearly double our visitation. In particular, if you are hard of hearing or if you have a young family, a guided tour can be kind of a struggle. Now you can get tour commentary through an app on your phone. And we give kids a treasure-hunt book, which has been a game-changer.
Many leisure travelers or group tours have a schedule to keep, and the self-guided tour allows flexibility because it doesn’t have a timed entrance. If you want to just stop by and tour the mansion, it’s possible. In the past, we might have been sold out for hours.
You do offer tours, though, right?
We may have moved our classic tour to self-guided, but we actually have more guided tours than before, and folks really enjoy them. We have created a series of them, ranging from our Nooks & Crannies tour to a Grounds Tour, a Photography Tour, and our Servants Tour.
What other changes did you make that might account for the increase in visitors?
We have enhanced our gardens and general landscaping to fit more to the original design, and that has created a more breathtaking estate to visit. Guided garden tours are available, and because of our growing season, groups can sample raspberries and veggies at times they wouldn’t expect. We’ve got a unique microclimate because of the fog that rolls off the lake.
We have also done a significant amount of restoration and repair to the estate—to the tune $6 million-plus. As part of that we have opened 15 spaces the public never had access to in the past. And the place just looks far better than it used to, from the Servants Courtyard to the West Gate wall and the tennis court. It is not the same place it was even three years ago.
How have you taken advantage of spaces on the property outside the home?
We look at the estate as more than just a history tour. We now think of it as a great community space. At its most basic level, this environment on the shore of Lake Superior is one of the nicest pieces of property on the whole lake. So we now find excuses to throw different events across the estate. For example, the Winter Village event in early December attracts nearly 20,000 people and offers about 30 Christmas-styled cabins placed around the estate with some of Duluth’s best vendors. Even better, the event is put together by a local organization, Duluth Loves Local.
We try to break the mold. We set up a retreat in the woods, we organized a kayak tour with a boxed lunch, and we hold a Friday Night Beach Club—with beer and pizza by the shore.
We also do an outdoor rock concert series on our concrete pier that extends into Lake Superior. This brings paddle boarders and passengers aboard sailboats and yachts together with 3,000 people sitting on the shoreline, all listening to great local music. These are not your typical house museum events, and we are proud of them.
How unique is it for a historical home to be owned by a state university?
It’s pretty common. Meadowbrook Hall in Michigan is a good example. One of the best advantages is it provides us with a supply of college students who give our tours. They bring an energy and enthusiasm not typically seen in the museum environment.
Tour operators seek to build unique experiences into their itineraries. How do you accommodate them?
We really enjoy orchestrating custom tours. For example, if a garden group contacts us, we set them up with our head gardener, who gives them an insider description of what it takes to make Glensheen so beautiful. Or if it’s a group of architects, we can set them up with a tour guide whose specialty is the architecture history and highlights of Glensheen and Duluth.
One of the more popular benefits is allowing groups to have their lunch on our shoreline. It is not every day that a group can sit down by the shore of Lake Superior and enjoy a great local sandwich. In the summer months, few things can beat it.
We work with local businesses to bring some unique experiences here, such as kayak tours on Lake Superior that end up here in Tischer Creek. It is really quite amazing to kayak under our stone arch bridge. We also offer a sauna experience from Hiki Hut, where you take a sauna then jump into Lake Superior. January through April, we offer free snowshoe rental to anyone who purchases a tour. Snowshoeing the property is one of the most beautiful ways to experience Glensheen and has become one of my personal favorites.
Top photo: Glensheen Mansion
Photo by Bob Rouse
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